How learning to ride a bike is like/not-like learning math, and why it should be!

What are the moments that truly matter?

For me they are moments where we learn or accomplish something we are exceptionally proud of. They are moments that make us stand back and say “Wow! I did it” They are moments that we say “wait, let me get a picture of this.” They are #Snapworthy moments.

For me they are, playing that first song on guitar, catching a fish for the first time, watching my daughters swim that full length of the pool, scoring a basket in basketball, scoring a goal, singing a song in front of an audience, or riding a bike for the first time.

Learning the skills needed to accomplish these feats takes a similar path. The process has a similar experience.

We learned these things through the process of productive struggle.

Take my daughter Lucie for example. She was the last to learn how to ride a bike (tough when you have a twin too). She finally learned in a similar way, most likely, to how you learned how to ride a bike; by getting on, trying to balance while coasting, then falling over! Then, trying again.

Every time she fell she learned something. She would adjust and try again. She was struggling productively.

The difference between just struggling and productive struggle is Feedback.

Going through the struggle, using feedback and then making small gains gives us a rewarding experience. It makes us want to keep going. We build perseverance. We want to do better. This is one of the key ingredients to make moments that matter.

You know, we learn to ride bikes this way but traditionally we don’t learn or teach math this way. Vice versa is also true. —> we don’t learn to ride a bike the same way we learn math.

For a moment Imagine that we did. Imagine we structured a course on riding bikes like we structure our traditional math classes.

Here’s what the syllabus of bike class might look like, especially if it was taught in our schools. (I’ve adapted an analogy here from Dr. William Rankin).

Day 1:

“Welcome to your first class on bicycle riding. It’s going to be a great semester! We’ll start off week 1 with learning all about the tires. Tires are super important they’re the life of the bike. Learning about tires is important because it will help us be ready when we ride a bike.

During week 2 and 3 we’ll go over how the pedals work. Pedals are vital, they help make the bike move. In those weeks we’ll learn how that happens so when we start riding bikes we’ll be ready.

In week 4 we’ll have a test on the tires and pedals and then we’ll move on to study the handle bars. We won’t revisit the tires and pedals again until the end of the year so make sure you study for this test!

Weeks 5-8 is for Brakes. Brakes are vital to controlling the bike. I know they are related to the handle bars but handle bars were last unit. We don’t want to mix the two.

Weeks 9-10 are for Gears! I know they’re part of the pedal, wheels, and handle bars, but we’ll just talk about gears those weeks. You’ll need to use them when you start riding your bike.

Well ……That’s all we have time for in this course….

If you take our next course we’ll learn all about balance, whoa, that’s a biggie when it comes to bike riding.

When do we actually ride bikes?

That’s when you graduate!

Silly right!!

What did you do when you learned how to ride a bike? You just jumped on and rode! Just like Lucie did.  You felt a purpose to what you were doing. You learned as you were riding. It was a memorable moment.

But that silly bike class is the way we traditional teach math class. We tell our students that a purpose of math learning is so they can solve problems in the real world! We hold it over their heads that real problem solving is only for when you’re in the real world — done all your schooling.

We’ve traditionally taught math concepts in siloed units as if one math strand isn’t connected at all to another.

We say now,


Teach through problem solving. Productive struggle teaches the resilience we are looking for in our students. Just get on the bike and ride it!

In many of my past “problem solving lessons  I wasn’t really teaching students how to become better problem solvers.

If we’re giving step by step guides to solving problems in our classes are we really teaching problem solving? How much genuine problem solving are we doing in our math classes?

Teach content through problem solving. It’s the productive struggle – feedback cycle that really teaches our students to build resilience and their problem solving skills. It’s the productive struggle – feedback cycle that will create moments that your students will feel pride in. Those are the moments that matter. Just get on the bike and ride it!


Carla, a participant from our Making Math Moments That Matter online workshop pointed me to a fascinating video –>  “The Backwards Brain Bicycle” from SmarterEveryDay. The video illustrates the notion that we may have the knowledge of how something works but we don’t always have the understanding of making it work.


How does the message of this video relate to math education? –> We may have the knowledge that we need to Just Ride Bikes so that our students can become better problem solvers while at the same time creating meaningful moments but we don’t understand exactly how to do that.

We ourselves need to Just Ride.

We have to unlearn what we understand about teaching math class so that we can build a new path towards Making Math Moments That Matter.

Resources to help “ride bikes”


Download the 3-page printable guide that will give you 3 actionable tips to build resilient problem solvers in your math classroom. 



Learn the concept of spriralling your math class and why you should do it. You’ll walk away from the video series with practical tips to implement spiralling in your classroom. 


New to Using 3 Act Math Tasks?

Download the 2-page printable 3 Act Math Tip Sheet to ensure that you have the best start to your journey using 3 Act math Tasks to spark curiosity and fuel sense making in your math classroom!

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